For those who can't get enough of indie rock's moody and soft-spoken underbelly, Small Circle's debut is a little hidden gem out of Philadelphia. As the side project of three Sorority Noise members — including singer Cam Boucher, whose grief and catharsis was the focal point of You're Not As _____ As You Think, one of this year's standout albums — the group unsurprisingly share plenty in common with its members' main gig.
The new blood here is Marissa D'Elia, who takes the fronting role in her first band ever. With the benefit of being flanked by road-vet bandmates (and with Boucher shouldering much of the burden of the singing duties), D'Elia sings with a quiet resolve; not shaky, but not overly confident, either.
The album bears traces of Death Cab for Cutie and the Weakerthans (largely due to the way Boucher sings on songs like "Vague Consensus" and "Stuartess"), along with Now, Now, fellow Pennsylvania outfit Tigers Jaw and even early Broken Social Scene. The songs veer between cheery, familiar refrains like "Point Breeze," and more gloomy numbers like "Ritual" and the especially poignant closer "About You." Often they'll use a single song to contrast those two moods, with "Spinning" overcoming its bubble-gummy verses to soar into its triumphant choruses. Other times, they nestle into a middle ground between comforting and daunting, as on the breezy "Mornings" or the crescendoing "Futile."
While the songwriting, melodies and instrumentation are solid on first listen, there's depth here that requires a number of spins to allow it to sink in. D'Elia initially keeps you at a safe distance with her understated delivery — she has things to say and is still developing the voice with which to say them — but the more time you spend with these songs, the more you can unpack their many layers.
With Cyclical, Small Circle are scanning a cloudy sky for silver linings. D'Elia tries to reconcile pain and hardship with love and empathy, and the songs tend to capture that conflict. It's a record in which its subject is vulnerable at all times, even when things seem to be looking up. It's not necessarily cathartic the way Sorority Noise's record was — whatever questions lie within have yet to be fully answered — but it's both consuming and uplifting, especially given time to fully unravel. (Flower Girl)